Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Dumpling Party

My Chinese American friend grew up celebrating the Lunar New Year in Queens, NY, and she misses those festivities in small town GA. This year she invited her family and friends to gather at her home for a potluck dumpling party to ring in the Year of the Monkey.

Of, the table simply overflowed with tasty dumplings from different cuisines.

The hosts made tofu-vegetable potstickers with a salty-sweet-gingery dipping sauce, and kimbap, Korean rice and seaweed rolls (brief recipe at the end of this post).

I wondered what to take. The various Indian cuisines have dozens of dishes that qualify as dumplings and I love them all- from karanjis to kachoris. In the end I went with two of my own favorites (that are also easy to make)- idli with cilantro- coconut chutney, and "faux-mosas" or samosa-style puffs made with frozen puff pastry.

I've been slowly working towards making the soft, melt-in-the-mouth idlis of my dreams and this batch turned out beautifully. You pick up tips here and there and get better every time, I feel. This time I used this tip for grinding soaked methi seeds on their own just before adding in the urad dal, and this tip for adding water to the batter- I realize now that I had not been adding enough water while making the batter. People dream of running ultramarathons and climbing Mt. Everest. Me, I dream of consistently making idlis that taste like clouds. With this batch, I feel like I turned a corner.

For the puffs, I wanted to make the standard filling of potato, cauliflower, peas and carrots seasoned with ginger and garlic, and then realized that I had no potatoes on hand. I cooked some cauliflower and mashed it and used that as the base of the filling, and it worked very well. The only thing to keep in mind is to not let the filling get soggy.

There was lots of filling left over and it made for great masala dosas over the next couple of days.

The other dishes at the party were- a piping hot vegetarian version of chicken and dumpling soup, filo dough dumplings with two different fillings- some with sweet potato and others with feta and spinach, and fusion "taco dumplings" with black beans and Mexican spices.

For dessert, cookies and candy were passed around, and the kids all got red envelopes with cash tucked inside, as per tradition. In the end, we were a bunch of happily stuffed people who not so secretly hope that our friend will make this party an annual tradition.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan Greens) and My Favorite Breakfast

When I had a chance to spend a few weeks in Kenya last May, one of the local foods that I really enjoyed eating was a dish of greens called sukuma wiki- I mentioned this dish several times in that post. 

Sukuma wiki uses the local greens (colewart) and it is in the spirit of the dish to adapt it to any greens that are locally and cheaply available. In my case, it was kale bought on sale at the supermarket. It is favored quite simply- like all the everyday Kenyan food I tasted- with onions and tomatoes, and salt. Nothing more. 

Here is my not-really-a-recipe recipe for sukuma wiki. I use my cast iron skillet for this.

1. Wash, trim and shred or finely chop a heap of greens
2. Heat 1 tbsp. oil.

3. Saute 1 medium chopped onion and 1 medium chopped tomato for a few minutes. 
4. Season with salt and pepper
5. Add greens and stir fry.
6. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the greens are tender. 

I resist the temptation to add turmeric, chili powder, cumin and so on to this dish. Not that it would be a bad thing to turn this into a typical pale bhaji. But the simplest form brings back memories of being in the African market and buying big handfuls of shredded greens from the kanga-clad vegetable sellers, and of helping my colleague stir a pot of sukuma on the tiny stove in his bachelor kitchen. 

Sukuma wiki goes with everything. It is nice to make a batch and keep on hand in the fridge, then use it in different dishes and as a side-dish for various meals. Rice and lentils are the classic companions for this dish, but we've eaten it with everything from instant noodles to spaghetti sauce. 

My favorite way is to eat it for breakfast like this: Heat a small tortilla on a griddle (I like low-carb tortillas from Trader Joe's). Top with some mashed avocado, hot sauce, a heap of sukuma wiki and a fried egg. Fold over and enjoy the breakfast wrap. What a perfect way to start the day. 

I eat a lot of avocados. I used to get very frustrated buying avocados because half of them would turn out to to be brown and unusable on the inside. Then I discovered this life-changing tip. It really works. Now I peek under the stem of the avocado at the store and only buy the ones that look green under the stem, then a couple of days on the counter and they are ready to eat (and will last in the fridge for several days if you want to wait). Now I have near-perfect avocados; the one in the pic below had a tiny brown spot but the rest was creamy green avocado. 

* * *
Over winter break, I was looking to sink my teeth into a juicy new mystery series, and remembered that someone had mentioned Elizabeth George- the author of the Inspector Lynley novels. I vaguely recall seeing a few episodes of the televised series on PBS years ago but had not read the books. I read the first two novels in the series and the writing is terrific. A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley, #1) which was a suspenseful and engrossing read but the ending was very disturbing. Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley, #2) was a formula mystery- a theater production team in a remote castle is snowed in, there is a murder, one of them had to have done it and so on. I look forward to reading more of this series- have you read them?

Another interesting read was the very recently published Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. V and I are avid fans of the New Yorker magazine; Norris has worked for the magazine for decades as a copy editor. The book is part memoir, part rantings and ravings of a grammar stickler, with lots of meditation on the quirks of the English language. As a kid, I loved reading Wren and Martin (a high school English grammar textbook)- not that you would know that from reading this poorly-proofread blog. Word lovers and grammar nerds will enjoy this book.  My favorite quote from the book: "Job of copy editor is to spell words right: put hyphen in, take hyphen out. Repeat. Respect other meaning of spell: spell writer weaves".

My favorite book this month was a work of non-fiction- A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a large, highly engaging tome on the art and science of giving- on sharing money and time with local and global organizations to benefit our communities. Kristof and WuDunn present dozens of case studies of people and projects that help those in need- their successes, failures and challenges. They address complex issues- such as about overhead expenses and staff salaries in non-profits. Many of us are searching for a more meaningful life and this optimistic book provides encouragement and advice on how to make a difference. 

Oh and you must treat yourself to these two delightful, hilarious, warm and beautifully written essays-

Auld Lang Syne, Kamini Dandapani's memories of her paternal grandparents' home, featuring "the strangest cast of characters, a terrifying bathroom and a belligerent buffalo named Lakshmi". 

Saapaadu Ready, Janani Sreenivasan's memories of travels with her mother's South Indian kitchen. "Take the best from all cultures. That's the best way of living I've found".

What have you been reading, cooking and eating these days? Happy February!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hello 2016

Exactly a year ago, on Jan 3, 2015, I took a deep breath and wrote this post about my theme for the year- "Nupur 2.0", an attempt to upgrade my life by tweaking my diet and exercise habits.

The words "diet" and "exercise" are not exactly jolly ones, are they? They have a rather bleak connotation of deprivation versus joyfully indulging in life, of stern discipline and making yourself do and eat things you'd really rather not.

A year later, I can say this: It wasn't that bad, y'all. In fact, it was much easier than I anticipated and very rewarding. Once I stopped thinking of it as a diet and exercise program but instead as a choice to be nicer to myself by eating better and moving more, the whole thing became a fun project and one that I intend to embrace for the rest of my life.

I am at a high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and since diabetes is a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism, my dietary changes revolve around bringing down my carb intake to moderate levels. Vegetables, which I love anyway, took on a new importance as I used them to replace much of the bread, rice, rotis, noodles, pasta and tortillas in my meals.

Broccoli slaw makes a satisfying noodle replacement.
Pasta dishes can be bulked up with vegetables.
Tasty salad dressings like this one and this one make eating raw vegetables a treat. Favorite dishes can be reinvented as salads, like this paneer tikka salad.

We subscribed to a locally grown veggie box all year and it forced me to work with enormous quantities of green leafy vegetables- learning how to quickly strip the leaves, stack them and chop them methodically into ribbons.

This is what a recent box looked like. V jokes that they just hack down a few bushes and stuff them in the box- you get this huge lot of pala-pachola (leaves). It was daunting to tackle these massive amounts of greens and come up with ways of using them. We did eat lots of raw salads (see some of the links above) but many of the tougher greens are tastier when cooked, and they shrink dramatically when cooked, so the armful of greens becomes a more manageable bowlful.

Greens can be added to so many recipes- I would stir them willy nilly into pulaos, scrambled eggs, pasta sauce...

My favorite greens recipe this year was collard greens wadi. But what my family really loves is a version of saag- basically this recipe with a huge amount of greens cooked into it. The saag is tasty with any and all mystery greens that show up at the door. Greens are some of the best things we can eat, so this one change has really enriched our diet. I made sure to welcome the new year with a collard greens and black eyed peas curry for lunch on Jan 1, in keeping with the Southern US superstition that eating those foods brings luck in the new year!

After years of trying to find a form of exercise that I liked to do (and failing numerous times), something finally clicked. I now have a variety of things I like to do- brisk walking, running (slow pace, short distances- usually on the road and sometimes on the treadmill), swimming, fitness classes and dance (ballet, zumba) classes and choose from this menu 4-5 days a week.

What I do from day to day depends on the weather, gym schedules, meetings at work and various other factors. But it is nice to have several activities to choose from, and it is good to know that even a simple walk around the neighborhood with my neighbor or with the dog is a great way to stay active when I can't get around to doing anything else. Taking the stairs has become a habit and I alternate between sitting and standing at my desk.

V and I have accumulated a big sleep debt since we became parents. And every evening after Lila goes to bed, there's the temptation to stay up just a little bit to enjoy some TV or read a few more pages or check e-mail one last time. I think regular exercise and going back to a full-time workload together have made my days so busy and tiring that I'm now totally on board with going to bed very early.  Light blocking curtains in the bedroom have made a huge difference in my sleep quality and so has turning down the heat and keeping the home a little cooler at night.

I had so much support throughout the year- friends always had encouraging words, V and Lila were on board, and most of all, my fitness instructors met me where I was and treated me with the utmost kindness. And to everyone who left encouraging comments and advice and shared their own stories on blog posts- thank you.

My only wish for 2016 is to keep doing all this, because it is working well for me. I did come up with a theme for 2016 and my mantra for this year is STREAMLINE. What I learned this year was that cooking vegetable-heavy meals and being active are both things that need an investment of TIME. This is going to be a tough year for me with a challenging workload and keeping up with these changes will need better time management. I want to work on streamlining grocery shopping, maybe doing some weekly meal planning, and using the freezer more efficiently for making back-up meals. I'd like to get rid of time-killing habits like checking e-mail every 30 minutes and in general, want to simplify and organize my life. Fingers crossed for a good year.

Happy 2016! What are your hopes and dreams for this year?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Holiday Cooking and Baking

December is always a fun and chaotic month and this year was no different- I think of it as the month when my 9 x 13 baking dishes get a workout. What does feel different is the weather- strangely warm and summery for this time of year. Lemonade weather rather than the hot chocolate kind.

Our work Christmas potluck this year was a brunch. The person organizing it did a nice job of signing up people for different categories of brunch- beverages, sweets (donuts, pastries), breakfast casseroles and quiches, breads/biscuits, cheeses and fruits- so we had a very well-rounded brunch spread. I was in the casseroles group and brought my egg enchiladas, which disappeared quickly. Someone brought in the tasty, crusty homemade bread with garlic bread. Another favorite was a cinnamon roll star (something like this)- I'd love to make that sometime.

The quilt guild potluck is always a good Southern style feast complete with jello salads. I took my other tried and true favorite- spinach lasagna (recipe from Cook's Country) and it went over well. My favorite dishes there were a cabbage casserole and a wonderful silky flan.

* * *

For V's birthday this year, I invited his work team for dinner- we were about 15 people in all. They all love Indian food so the menu was completely predictable but well-loved: Paneer curry, Palak chana, Jeera rice, Raita, Vegetable patties. The birthday cake was a Black Forest cake. To keep things simple, I made it in a sheet cake format like so. To me, sheet cakes are much easier to put together than round layer cakes.

Black forest cake, of course, is a nostalgic favorite for both of us, and quite easy to assemble with chocolate cake, cherry syrup, cherries, whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings.

1. Make this recipe for chocolate cake in a 9 x 13 baking pan.

2. After the cake cools, flip it out of the pan and cut it in half horizontally with a long serrated knife.

3. Syrup: For the cherry portion, I used Trader Joe's dark morello cherries in light syrup which come in a glass jar. I drained the cherries, reserved half the syrup and stirred in some brandy and powdered sugar into the reserved syrup. Set aside.

4. Whip 2 cups heavy cream into soft peaks, stir in vanilla extract and powdered to lightly flavor the cream. Refrigerate.

5. Put half the cake back into the pan. Brush it liberally with the cherry syrup. Spread half the whipped cream on the cake, and spread half the drained cherries.

6. Place the other half of the cake back in the pan. Brush it liberally with syrup. Cover with the rest of the whipped cream and cherries. Decorate with chocolate shavings made by using a peeler on a dark chocolate bar.

7. Chill and serve. This is a crowd-pleasing cake as one might imagine; there was only a tiny piece left over at the end of the night.

* * *

Almond buttercrunch candy- made this
Cornflakes chivda- also made for Diwali

Exchanging small gifts is the other highlight of the month. The reliable food gift from my kitchen is this recipe for mandelbrot, a version of almond biscotti. For people who are OK eating gluten, nuts and eggs, this is my go-to gift. As plain and simple as they look, these cookies always get rave reviews. I made a batch for my gym instructors and ballet teacher.

Lila's teachers got a small box of biscotti, a gift card and a card with a very heartfelt thank you note for their wonderful care through the year. To give you an example of why I like Lila's class teacher: we took Lila to our town's Christmas parade and on the way there, she said, "One of my teachers is in the parade. She's super special and she helps me always- can you guess who it is? It's Mrs. M!" If that is how your students describe you, you're doing it right.

For some of my co-workers, I made hot chocolate mix packed in mason jars and wrapped with a festive tea towel- sort of a gift inside a gift.

I wanted to make cookies that were eggless for someone who is allergic to eggs. My favorite eggless cookies have got to be shortbread cookies, which usually have a very short ingredient list of flour, butter and sugar, and which simply melt in the mouth. They are very nankatai-like, for those of us who remember those bakery cookies from India.

I tried two new recipes for shortbread this year. One was this fig and maple shortbread, a recipe that I found in the Washington Post. It is a wonderful recipe, easy to pull together and with a rather gourmet taste.

The other was this back-of-the-box recipe for Canada cornstarch shortbread. I added a wee bit of salt, some cardamom and pistachios to the basic recipe. I tasted one and liked it- the rest were packaged up and mailed out.

And I was the lucky recipient of this generous cookie tray from one of my dear quilting buddies. She tells me that two are family favorites- the powdered sugar bow ties are Polish chruschiki and the powdered sugar folded ones with apricot preserves are Hungarian kiffels. And there were chocolate chip and chocolate-dipped peanut cookies, and some candy truffles. The kiffels were my absolute favorites.

I did get several other sweet gifts from friends and co-workers- nice soap, a mug with my initials, home-canned pickle relish, peanut butter truffles, bourbon balls...mmm.

Are you making any gifts this year? What are you cooking and baking? 

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings to All! 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving- which was celebrated a week ago in the US- is a cook's holiday and an eater's delight. The holiday is officially on the last Thursday of November but it is safe to say that between various feasts and the leftovers, you are well fed throughout the week.

Our festivities kicked off with a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Tuesday. I made the pumpkin roll (the same one from Halloween) again. My other contribution was a tray of my standard vegetable biryani, made Thanksgiving style with roasted sweet potatoes and green beans, and a generous garnish of dried cranberries and fried onions.

Wednesday was the Thanksgiving feast at Lila's preschool for all the kids and their teachers. Parents brought in various sides. I took mashed potatoes and roasted sweet potato cubes. The mashed potatoes were simply made with cream, salt and pepper to appeal to the littles. The roasted sweet potatoes were also seasoned very simply and designed to be picked up and eaten by toddler hands.

On Thanksgiving Thursdays I tend to spend all day in the kitchen. This time, a friend invited us to a "Friendsgiving" dinner at her home and insisted that I not bring a dish. Well, it was downright luxurious to spend the day puttering around the house, coloring with Lila, working on a quilt and having to cook nothing at all. We just took over a bottle of wine and enjoyed a feast in the evening. Our friend laid out a wonderful table with tofurkey, all the typical sides like salad, green bean casserole, potato gratin, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy. With pumpkin pie for dessert.

Friday was my annual celebration of "buy nothing day", and I joined my running group for a 3 mile post-Thanksgiving run in the morning.

When Saturday rolled around, I had a chance to cook and host a Thanksgiving feast (Part II) at my home. Close friends came over, and a family member drove in for the weekend, and it was the perfect gathering.

Here's what I made:

The main dish: Roasted Portobello Mushroom, Pecan and Chestnut Wellington. In the days before this holiday, all the blogs and food websites are buzzing with recipes to try, and this fancy-looking recipe on the Washington Post website caught my eye instantly. There's an accompanying video and it really did not look that difficult to make.

This dish was a huge success and the star of the meal- I followed the recipe very closely. We had a bundle of fresh herbs from our CSA veggie box and those really added a special flavor to it. Frozen puff pastry and cooked, peeled chestnuts came from Trader Joe's. This is a beautiful vegetarian centerpiece for a holiday meal and I'll be making it again and again. Next time I might add lentils to the filling instead of breadcrumbs.

We served the sliced wellington with some jarred rhubarb chutney and gravy made with nutritional yeast and mushroom stock.

The sides were pretty simple- a green salad, mashed sweet potatoes and roasted cauliflower.
Dessert was chocolate pecan pie, which is as close to a Thanksgiving tradition as we have in this family (you can find the recipe at the end of this post). Served with vanilla ice cream, of course.

Tell me what you did over Thanksgiving break! Or just what you're cooking and baking these days.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Books, Movies and a Seasonal Dal

A belated Happy Diwali to you all! We had a very quiet Diwali- lighting rows of twinkling tea lights, enjoying a nice family dinner, and feasting on homemade faraal- two types of chivda, anarse, shankarpale, chakli, shev- generously sent by my parents.

I recently completed a pretty mundane home improvement project and was surprised at how much it improved my life: it was simply putting up light blocking curtains on our bedroom windows. When drawn, they make the room pitch dark; I sleep so much more soundly in this cave-like darkness. I put the curtains on rings making it easy to pull them open with a flick of the wrist to let natural light stream in during the day. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that this has been life-changing. Because I sleep more restfully, I've been motivated to go to bed early (I mean super early, like 8:30 PM, I basically stuck to my usual bedtime even when the clocks turned back) in an attempt to make up for years of sleep deprivation.

Did I just gush over a pair of grey curtains? Yes! LOL!

This early bedtime means I'm not reading as much as I like to, and that's OK. Most days, I just flip through magazines and read an article or two. A couple of the magazines we subscribe to (New Yorker, Science) and the others- more delicious ones like Real Simple and Southern Living and Good Housekeeping- are borrowed from informal magazine exchange racks at my public library and the gym.

I did read two more books from the NPR book list and enjoyed them both: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson. And with that I'm totally done with romance novels for the next decade or so.

Right now, I am reading I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb as part of the read-along for Nonfiction November.

I did watch some good movies on Netflix. My favorite has to be Queen, a 2014 Hindi comedy-drama. A young woman from Delhi is shattered when her fiance calls off their wedding at the last minute, but decides to go on her European honeymoon on her own. This is such a sweet, funny and heart-warming movie. I'm not saying it is perfect- it could easily have been a good 45 shorter for one thing- but there's something about this movie that I really adored.

Another good one was Philomena, a more serious drama starring one of my favorite actors, Judi Dench. She was nominated for an Oscar for this one.

Today's Special is a sweet little foodie movie. I loved the cast of this movie more than the actual storyline. So many beloved actors here.

V and I did something that does not happen often for us- we went to an actual movie theater to see a new release, while our friends watched Lila. It was The Martian and we enjoyed it. Although the last movie we saw in the theater was Interstellar, which also featured Matt Damon stranded on a lonely planet. Deja vu?

As far as TV goes, I've been watching some episodes of Aziz Ansari's Master of None and also some old episodes of 30 Rock, one of my favorite sitcoms. Tina Fey is brilliant.

* * * 
Today's recipe came about serendipitously but the results were particularly enjoyable so I'm recording it here. I was making a simple masoor dal (pink/red lentils), and noticed that there was some mashed sweet potato in the fridge that needed to be eaten soon. On a whim, I added it to the dal and the result was creamy, comforting and perfect for the season. It is always nice to try small variations on everyday dals, and I hope you enjoy this one.

Sweet Potato Dal

1. Soak 1 cup masoor dal for a few hours, and rinse throughly.

2. In the body of a pressure cooker, heat 1 tbsp oil. Temper with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, 1 tsp. cumin seeds, a few curry leaves, a sprinkle of asafetida.

3. Add 1 small minced onion and fry for a couple of minutes. Season with salt to taste, 1 tsp. ginger paste, 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric and 1-2 tsp. of your favorite masala.

4. Add the soaked masoor dal and 1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato. Or if you don't have leftover sweet potato, then add small diced raw sweet potato.

5. Add about 3 cups water (or more or less depending on the consistency you like) and pressure cook.

6. Stir the creamy dal, drizzle with lemon juice, chopped cilantro and ghee and serve warm.

What have you been cooking, reading, watching? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Fall Baking is a Go, and Doggy Tales

The clocks turned back by an hour this past Sunday as we switched back to Eastern Standard Time. The time honored thing to do (no pun intended) is to use that extra hour to sleep in. Since that wasn't an option for me with my little early bird, I did the next best thing and used the extra hour to fire up the oven and get on with Fall baking.

Sunday was also the day when we turned a page on the calendar, and there really was no better way to start off the brand new month of November than to be elbow-deep in pumpkin puree and flour, in a warm kitchen scented with vanilla and cinnamon.

Baking had already started the day before, on Saturday. I did end up making that pumpkin cream cheese roll that I dreamed about for days after watching the Swiss roll episode of the Great British Baking Show and talked about last week. The recipe was from a reliable source, the King Arthur Flour blog. It needed a 10 x 15 inches baking pan which I did not have, but I found one in my supermarket for about 5 bucks.

The recipe was surprisingly easy to follow. I cut down the sugar in the cake to 3/4 cup. The filling of the cake is absolutely dreamy (and I'm usually not a fan of frosting). It came together quickly and easily; I did everything by hand with a bowl and a whisk. The cake cracked a little bit as I started to roll it but the cracks got hidden in the inside of the roll.

We took the pumpkin roll to our neighborhood Halloween potluck and costume party and it was well-received. Now, from the strictly critical view-point of, say, Paul and Mary, the cake was slightly sticky and the roll sank a little bit (it "sat" instead of being a perfect oval). But the taste was wonderful and I can see myself making this again and again. Hooray for finally making a Swiss roll!

Sunday baking started with an apple bundt cake and pumpkin chocolate chip bread; I had to bring in these treats to a work event on Monday morning.

The pumpkin chocolate chip bread was a quick way to use up the leftover canned pumpkin from making the roll.

The apple bundt cake came from this recipe on Epicurious. I love the bundt pan that my sister bought for me from the factory sale in Minneapolis, and super-sized bundt cakes are just the thing to feed a crowd. This recipe is definitely a keeper. My modifications were to cut the sugar down to 1 3/4 cups from 2.5 cups, I used milk instead of orange juice and did not peel the apples. I loved how the sugary apple pieces studded the cake throughout. Most apple cakes are crumbly and this one surprised me by being very easy to cut into neat slices with a serrated knife.

While the cakes were in the oven, I threw in a whole spaghetti squash to bake at the same time, and then made a gratin with the spaghetti squash and some collard greens. That took care of lunch.

The final bake of the day was my weekly big batch of granola, which is what V eats for breakfast day after week after year.

On the subject of baking, I should tell you about the impossible pumpkin pie  I made last weekend from Susan's recipe. We had guests who don't eggs, and I wanted to make something seasonal, so this vegan recipe for pumpkin pie was just the thing. Impossible pies are crustless, but with added flour, so that as they bake, the flour separates and magically forms a crust (of sorts) for the pie. I like them for how effortless they are to put together.

I used one whole can of pumpkin (not pie filling, just pure canned pumpkin) in this recipe, and some extra baking powder and baking soda in place of the commercial egg substitute. It came out well and tasted wonderful chilled and served with a side of whipped cream and toasted walnuts.

I did get my allotted extra hour of sleep that day, by exhausting myself completely and going to bed at 8 PM!

* * *
What's sweeter than apple cake and pumpkin bread put together? Definitely our almost-3 year old mutt, Duncan.

Duncan is a canine ambassador, a "gateway dog" who has helped many people get over their fear of dogs just by having the sweetest personality. Just last weekend, we had a visitor who screamed in fright when Duncan first came into the room. A couple of hours later, she was willingly petting him on the head as she said goodbye. Her husband could not believe his eyes.

This is funny because at almost 100 lbs, being big is his defining characteristic. And he has a resounding bark that can make you jump out of your skin. But the big dogs are the gentlest ones. One time, a tiny 5 pound kitten walked right up to Duncan and slapped a paw at his nose. Not very smart of the kitten, because Dunkie could have eaten her in one bite if he wanted to. But he just looked hurt/bewildered and backed off.

When Lila's little friends come over to play, I watch him closely, not because I'm afraid that he will hurt the kids (I have complete confidence that he won't), but I worry that the kids will be too rough with him. Duncan loves playing with the little ones; it is funny to see him towering over the doll house and trying to join in the game. But never try to play hide and seek with a dog- the dog will win every time.

A few weeks ago, lightning struck our neighbor's house down the road late on a stormy evening, and the house caught on fire- no one was hurt, luckily. It was a chaotic situation for the homeowner, a lady in her 80s, and we offered to take in her two dogs for the night and keep them safe while the family figured out what to do. And of course, Duncan being Duncan, welcomed the two strangers into his home, shared his food, toys and bed with them and did not complain when one of the dogs started bossing him around.

Which is not to say that Dunkie does not have his feisty side. He loves playing boisterously at the dog park and at doggie daycare, where we send him one or two days a week so he can play his little heart out. He's always well-behaved at daycare, except for one time when I went to pick him up and was told, "Duncan used his size to take away toys from other dogs". I didn't quite know how to respond to that- Umm, I'll have a chat with him about his behavior?

Lila asked me, "When Duncan was a puppy, was he a chihuahua?" Kids have impeccable logic!

What have you been baking and cooking? Tell me about the pets in your life.